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Thanksgiving: A Jewish Perspective

Thanksgiving: A Jewish Perspective


We, the American citizenry, are a thankful lot. Our calendar is dotted with days when we express our gratitude to various individuals and entities. On Veterans Day, we thank the members of the Armed Forces for their dedicated service. On Memorial Day, we show our gratitude to those courageous men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice while defending our liberties and democratic lifestyle. On Labor Day, we express our appreciation to the industrious American workforce, the people who keep the wheels of our economy turning. On other selected days, we pause to thank different historic individuals who have made valuable contributions to our nation.

As Jews, we always look to the Torah for a deeper perspective. What light does the Torah shed on the wonderful trait of thankfulness?

And then there is Thanksgiving. The day when we thank G‑d for enabling all the above—and for all else He does for us.

There is no doubt that this great country’s historically unprecedented success and prosperity is due to the fact that its Founding Fathers recognized that there is a Supreme Being who provides and cares for every creature. They understood that since G‑d sustains and gives life to every being, it follows that every being has certain “unalienable rights” upon which no government can impinge.

These strong morals upon which our republic was founded express themselves to this day in American life. Looking at the dollar bill and seeing “In God We Trust” is a reassurance that, as a people, we still recognize and acknowledge the Source of all our achievements.

As Jewish citizens of this land, we always look to the Torah for a deeper perspective and additional insight. What light does the Torah shed on the wonderful trait of thankfulness?

Actually, there is one particular mitzvah which is completely devoted to expressing gratitude—the mitzvah of bikkurim (Deuteronomy 26:1–12). During the Temple era, every farmer was commanded to bring to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem the first fruits which ripened in his orchard. There he would recite a passage thanking G‑d for the Land and its bountiful harvest, and the fruits were given to the kohanim (priests). The Midrash extols the great virtue of this mitzvah, going so far as to say that the Land of Israel was given to the Jews as a reward for the mitzvah of bikkurim they would observe after entering the Land!

While the importance of expressing deserved gratitude is self-understood, it is difficult to comprehend the special significance of bikkurim. Isn’t the Jewish day jam-packed with “thank you”s? The first words we utter when waking in the morning express our thanks to G‑d for returning our souls to our bodies. Thrice daily during the course of prayer, we thank G‑d for everything imaginable. Before and after eating, we thank G‑d for the food. There is even a blessing recited upon exiting the restroom, thanking G‑d for normal bodily function!

With all the thanking which occurs on a daily basis, why the need for a specific mitzvah to emphasize the point? And why the great reward for this particular form of expressing thanks?

The Rebbe points out one obvious difference between bikkurim and all the other ways we thank G‑d: bikkurim involves more than just words—it requires a commitment; the gratitude must express itself in deeds. Bikkurim implies that our thankfulness to G‑d cannot remain in the realm of emotions, thoughts, or even speech, but must also move us to action.

While the mitzvah of bikkurim in its plainest sense is not practicable today, its lesson is timeless. Our gratitude to G‑d must express itself in the actions of our daily life. Giving back the “first of our fruit,” the choicest share of the crop, is the only appropriate way to thank G‑d for giving us all our fruit.

Rabbi Naftali Silberberg is a writer, editor and director of the curriculum department at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. Rabbi Silberberg resides in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Chaya Mushka, and their three children.
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
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Discussion (37)
November 23, 2016
Jewish Origins
There is source evidence that the Pilgrims saw themselves as the New Israel (something we reject for various reasons). However, as a result, they modeled their first Thanksgiving after Sukkot. Thanksgiving was originally a multi-day event held earlier in the Fall (closer to the time of the biblical Sukkot).
November 26, 2015
alice jena
richmond hill
November 25, 2015
Is thanks giving Jewish ?
I would have to say that thanking God is inherently Jewish ! We thank him daily ,hourly ,on shabbat . Giving thanks for the loving kindness and eternal tender mercy of our Hashem are hardwired into Jewish DNA ! So thanks giving is another day to thank Hashem let's eat !
Sandra L Johnson
Highland ,Indiana
November 25, 2015
Jews are thankful too.
Thanksgiving I think of Pilgrims and Indians sharing a meal and being thankful for what they have. Jews are thankful every sabbeth and thankful for the Torah. So I am sure Thanksgiving can pass the test of Kosher blessings.
James More
Seasaw City
December 7, 2012
Thanksgiving is an American day of appreciation for all we have. Most people have this day to help gather the family and friends together which seems more and more difficult in modern society with Jews and non Jews alike. "Thanksgiving" day is a time to share in an American Ideal in which all Jews should be thankful for and doesn't mean we should not give thanks on a daily basis.
Mike Reichbach
November 22, 2012
Thanks giving
I give thanks for our G-d. I am thankful for our existence and prayers for peace. It is good to give thanks throughout the day everyday for our ability to do good deeds.
Alexa Liszcz
November 22, 2012
The American Indian
This is not a day of thanks in terms of the story, the entire story, a story that involves the Pilgrims and the Grim part, what happened to the American Indian, that is actually an ongoing story, as they were put on reservations, and had their language taken away from them, and they were stripped of rights, and put into movies as the "bad guys". We had cowboys AND Indians. We should be thinking thanks not tanks, because the world is still filled with injustice, hate, and the polarizing enmities that keep people fighting, for what they each feel is just cause. It's hard to combat this, when everyone thinks they are the standard bearers. And groups have their followers, and we know about strength in numbers. But what ultimately counts, is THANKS, and I am not criticizing this article, but augmenting the story, and 'argumenting' for change in how we do business, around the world. It could be one day, and should be, every day is Thanksgiving, and for that we need a new Chapter.
ruth housman
marshfield, ma
November 22, 2012
I agree with this 1 year old comment, no x-mass and no thanksgiving for me
November 24, 2011 I suggest a deeper look is taken into the true history of thanksgiving and the true nature of those so called founding fathers. As a Jewish woman it is my duty not only to know the truth about the genocide, corruption, greed and dehumanization that occured to the original inhabitants of the land. As a person of Jewish faith I denounce the atrocities that took place. This is not a day for celebration, this is a day of remembrance and reflection. Never again! Anonymous
April 7, 2012
as a muslim i am impressed by the jewish meaning of chanukah. islam teaches the same doctrine of thanks giving on a hourly bases and at least five times a day.but also gives weight to put your thanks in action also as verbal thanks do not go far. on the subject of yum kapoor, i request my jewish brothers not to forget the palastinian in israel as well
Mehrul Qadir
Staines, u.k
November 24, 2011
Deism is why America is successful
The reason America is a success is that its founding fathers were Deists, who acknowledged the possibility of a creator but realized our fates are in our own hands. Contrast that to the social and political failure of Iran, or the malaise and constant state of war in Israel, both of which are run on the basis of belief.

Thanksgiving is just a nice legal holiday and winter shopping break. Its origins go back to the primitive beliefs of those who came well before the Founding Fathers. Enjoy your turkey, but think like a modern human being and forget old, Near Eastern tribal superstitions which have been so clearly disproven by science.
Proud Athiest